In order to understand the universal appeal of the songs of Stephen Foster we have to
look at the place and time in which they were written.
Foster was born in the smokey
industrial town of Pittsburgh in 1826, which then stood on the edge
of the wilderness. It was inhabited almost wholly by recent immigrants from Europe who
were, quite naturally, unsettled and often homesick. This was Foster's audience.
Foster's career also coincided with the heyday of the minstrel shows, which parodied and ridiculed
the black races as a way of diffusing their perceived threat to white society.
His supreme gift was to be able to see through the white paranoia and connect with the black man's
own homesickness, for he too was a long way from home, and tap into a well of sadness and nostalgic
longing in both races, and link them together in his songs.
The fact that they are still loved today simply confirms the fact that these emotions are timeless -
they are an ever-present whichever age you live in, and there is always a tendency to look back at a
perceived loss of innocence and simplicity, which is becoming increasingly the case as life
gets ever more urbanised and complex. It also confirms, of course, that they are beautifully written songs.
For his first success, Oh! Susanna, first published in 1848, Foster is reputed
to have received the princely sum of $100, having signed away his royalties to a music
publisher. The song went straight into folk legend, taken up as it was by the gold prospectors
heading out West ( the '49ers ). He followed this up with a string of what are now classic favourites, finishing just
before his death with Beautiful Dreamer in 1862, written in longing for his lost
wife Jane. This song could almost describe Foster himself, a slim, attractive man
with little or no business sense - a dreamer, certainly - but one who was apparently
an excellent listener and possessed a kind and intelligent nature.
Foster went the way of many innocents, dying tragically young and an alcoholic at the
age of 39. The irony here is that this youngest surviving son from a family of "achievers" was
the one who eventually achieved a kind of immortality.